An important intervention from David Davis on the proposals for fixed term parliaments. He told the BBC it was a “very serious mistake” to require a 55 per cent super majority to call an early election.
“The consequence, in the extreme, is you could have a government in parliament which could command 45 per cent, or 45 per cent plus one, of parliamentary votes, but no more, and therefore couldn’t deliver a budget, couldn’t deliver its manifesto, couldn’t deliver its normal legislation and yet couldn’t be thrown out either.”
He went on to point out that this was a massive constitutional change that was “something more important than one government or party”.
“We’ve something very important to democracy and our constitution is the ability of parliament to dismiss a failing government.”
There are four assumptions underpinning his concerns that seem a bit shaky:
1) That a government could survive a no-confidence vote The bar for confidence is still a simple majority. The convention is that if a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote, he is either replaced by another prime minister or calls an election. With a 55 per cent threshold to call an early election, there is no change to the ability of parliament to throw out a government. The big change is decoupling the convention of an election being called after a government is thrown out.
2) That a Zombie government could not be replaced Davis implies that 45 per cent of seats would give a government the right to hold on to office for five years. But of course, if a government did lose a confidence vote, the other parties would be given the chance to form an alternative coalition. Mid-term changes of government are not unprecedented, even in Britain.
3) That a Zombie government would want to carry on Would any prime minister, however unpopular their poll standing may be, want to soldier-on after losing a no-confidence vote? Surely they would want to call an election? And if a deluded leader wasn’t able to give up, wouldn’t the party force him out?
4) That this changes the constitution forever As Robert Hazell of UCL told me: “The other glory of our constitution is that this is an ordinary law that will have no more force than any other act of parliament, which can be repealed with a simple majority. It is only trying to establish a norm, maybe only for the next few years.” So, in Davis’ “extreme” scenario, the 54 per cent of MPs outside a Zombie administration could get together with the simple aim of changing the law on calling elections.
In Hazell’s words: “People who say this is a constitutional outrage need to have a sense of proportion.”